The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

June 22, 2013

Preserving plant’s past: Vintondale man leads effort to save bomber site

JOHNSTOWN — Historians at the Yankee Air Museum in Belleville, Mich., are working to preserve a historic World War II bomber plant that is to be demolished later this year, and an area man is at the forefront.

Former Pitt-Johnstown student and Vintondale resident Ray Hunter now acts as the museum’s board of directors chairman and said the board is hoping to buy a section of the Willow Run Bomber Plant that is to be torn down.

If purchased, Hunter said the section will serve as a new location for the museum, its planes, and its other exhibits.

Now, the planes and the museum’s main exhibit are housed on opposite sides of Willow Run Airport, making it difficult for visitors to see both, he said.

“The airplanes are hangared down on the west side of Willow Run Airport, and the exhibit is on the east side about two miles away.”

Before a fire destroyed the museum in 2004, Michigan Aerospace Foundation president and museum founder Dennis Norton said both the planes and exhibit were under one roof.

“It was an old building. Some of the old wiring just let loose,” he said. “We managed to save the larger  aircraft, but we lost a lot of artifacts.

“We’d like to put them back together,” he said, adding that it’s difficult to take visitors to see the planes because they are on a secure part of the airport.

Originally, the plan was to build a new hangar near the exhibit, but Norton said, once they heard about the plant’s demolition, they decided it should be preserved, too.

“A new hangar would be cool, but we wouldn’t be preserving a piece of history.”

The 5 million-square-foot plant used to be the main producer of B-24 Liberator bomber planes during World War II, Norton said, adding that there were only four plants in the country that produced these planes. Willow Run produced the most.

“Out of those four plants, just about half were built at Willow.”

At the peak of production, Hunter said the plant was producing one bomber every 55 minutes and added that only four B-24 bombers remain in existence.

“Many were destroyed after the war just for their aluminum content. I guess they made beer cans out of them,” he said.

Norton said this production scale was achieved because auto production in Detroit stopped.

Ford Motor Co. originally owned the plant, but after the war the facility was sold, Norton said. After a series of sales, General Motors Co. gained ownership.

However, when GM declared bankruptcy, it was decided that the plant would be demolished, Hunter said.

“When General Motors declared bankruptcy, many of their facilitates were declared excess,” he said. “They just couldn’t find someone to take over the plant.”

Hunter said the museum saw the plant as the perfect place to relocate their exhibit and planes.

“Finally, we saw the opportunity to save the Willow Run Bomber Plant, but we need a lot of money to do that.”

The estimated amount need to save just a 175,000-square foot-section of the plant is $8 million, Hunter said.

“That’s kind of an estimate. That’s a maximum,” he said.

Because the museum is a non-profit organization, Hunter said raising the money could be tough.

Close to $3 million has been raised, but the remaining money needs to be raised by Aug. 1, Norton said, adding that through value engineering they have been able to lower the amount.

“We’ve probably knocked about $2 million off that way,” he said, “but we need to find some major donors that really think this is a cool idea.

“We have a very short time to raise a lot of money. This is a piece of American history. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

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